If Youth Knew, If Age Could 2 — Freethought for a Multipolar World
Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).
Here we talk about youth freethought issues in a multipolar world.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The 21st century will witness the decline and fall of some nation-states, even the rise, decline, and fall of others. In short, the world is becoming more and more plural, as we saw since the end of WWII.
The difference will be the rapidity of this geostrategic change in the world. Much freethought came from the United States in the 20th century. This, in some ways, reflected its dominant economic and military position in the world.
With legitimate individual nation-state (e.g., India, China, Japan, Germany, etc.) and coalition (e.g., BRIC) competitors, the world changes. Unipolar, ie., America, in the middle of the 20th century. Bipolar, i.e., America and the Soviet Union, in the latter 20th century. Multipolar, i.e., everyone, as the 21st century progresses.
How should younger people be thinking about this issue? How will this change the thought landscape of the various secular identities adopted by individuals marking their freethought territory?
Dr. Herb Silverman: You mentioned BRIC, which is an acronym for the developing nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China — countries that many believe will become the dominant suppliers of manufactured goods, services, and raw materials by 2050. In 2010, South Africa joined the group, making it BRICS. They then became a political organization, embracing global capitalism and cooperation among its members, hoping to influence the United States on trade policies.
So what, if anything, does BRICS have to do with freethought? Countries that influence the economies in other parts of the world also tend to influence cultures there, which may include religious beliefs.
Latin America has 42 percent of the world’s Catholic population, but the Catholic hierarchy is worried. In Brazil, the most populous country in Latin America, only 65 percent say they are Catholic, down from more than 90 percent in 1970. And lots of these Catholics rarely attend Mass. Some have left the Catholic Church because of competition from evangelical and charismatic churches. One major problem for the Catholic Church has been a drop in the number of children couples are having. Religion is largely hereditary, where children usually adopt the religion of their parents. Fewer children means fewer baptisms and fewer confirmations as well as fewer candidates to become priests and nuns. Further, women who have fewer children are likely to be more secure and better educated, with less need for a dogmatic religion. But an even bigger threat to the Catholic Church in Latin America might be the growing secularism and indifference to religion. As in Europe and the United States, more and more say they have no religious affiliation. The Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics was founded in 2008.
Despite many problems with Vladimir Putin and Russia, restriction of religious freedom does not appear to be one of them. The Russian Law of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association declares all religions equal and prohibits government interference in religion. By law the country is a secular state without a state religion.
I went to India in 1997 to give a series of mathematics talks at universities around the country. While there, I visited the Periyar Self-Respect Center in Madras, run by atheists and humanists. Their primary goals are to eliminate the caste system, improve the status of women, and combat superstition created by religion. They sponsor educational programs and hold free clinics for women’s health and family planning. There is now a Freethought Party of India consisting of freethinkers and social reformers, whose platform includes eradication of caste, creed, and state patronization of superstitions and inhumane religious practices. One current problem in India is the struggle between those who want to retain its official secular status against encroachment by Hindus. A controversial new law would fast-track citizenship for religious minorities except for Muslims, with whom the majority Hindus have had a long history of conflict.
China persecutes Christians and Muslims (I guess there aren’t enough Jews in China to worry about.). I’m pleased to say that resistance against such persecution has been growing. China will do what I have thought about doing — rewrite the Bible to reflect my views. There are many interesting fables from which to draw valuable lessons. There is also reasonable humanistic advice, which one can accept without the supernatural. Thomas Jefferson set an example when he rewrote the Bible, using a razor to cut out supernatural stories and keep what he considered to be good morality. Jefferson referred to what remained of his bible as “diamonds in a dunghill.”
China is planning to rewrite the Bible and Quran to reflect socialist values consistent with the beliefs of the Communist Party. Paragraphs deemed wrong by the censors will be amended or re-translated to prevent extreme thoughts and heretical ideas from eroding the country. I have no problem with such an undertaking, except that the official versions of the Bible and Quran would be banned. While I might actually prefer the rewriting, as I did with the Jefferson Bible, I value religious freedom more.
South Africa is a secular state with freedom of religion enshrined in its Constitution. The newly formed South African Secular Society is a community of atheists who have social events, do good works, and show a positive face for nonbelievers.
As far as what young freethinkers in different countries should do in the 21st century, I think the century doesn’t matter. All humans need a sense of community, which is what has helped churches to survive for so many centuries. I think we should take whatever positive examples we find in churches, and participate in local freethought communities to meet and support like-minded people. If there is none in your area, then think of helping to start one. Also, consider joining one or more national and international freethought groups. Don’t be concerned about the name (freethought, atheist, agnostic, humanist, secular humanist, rationalist, etc.). They all disbelieve in the same gods.
You can also search the Internet for freethought groups that meet online. Personally, I prefer human interaction, but I understand that some might prefer the anonymity the Internet affords. I’m certainly pleased to see the decline of religion in most societies, but I hope we can effectively help the rise of non-religion through various freethought groups.
And while we’re on the subject of international freethought, I’ll mention the 2020 World Humanist Congress on August 6–9 in Miami, Florida. The Congress will be hosted by the American Humanist Association and Humanists International. Humanists, atheist, and skeptic organizations from around the globe will present speakers, seminars, panel discussions, and networking. You can find out more at humanism2020.org.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.
Image Credit: Herb Silverman.